The decor’s not quite fit for a king, but the dumplings are fit for royaltyMy big, fat Korean holiday banquet always included giant dumplings simmering and mung bean pancakes sizzling. More precisely, it’s the North Korean way ― since that’s where my grandparents lived before escaping to the South during the Korean War.
Those bean patties and fist-sized dumplings were the pride of our family. My parents never liked the dumplings served at local restaurants, except the ones at Koong, a cozy place in Insa-dong.
Koong, which means palace in Korean, sits in a nook in a back alley in the neo-traditional neighborhood. Situated in the owner’s old hanok, or traditional Korean house, it’s far from plush. It’s not the decor, but the food, that makes Koong true to its name.
Dumplings have been enjoyed in northern Korea for centuries. Koong’s owner, Im Myeong-suk, now an elderly lady, is from Gaeseong, just north of the 38th parallel. The further north you travel, the bigger the dumplings get. Gaeseong-style dumplings aren’t huge, about half the size of your fist.
Joraengi, a rice cake in the shape of two petite round cakes joined like Siamese twins, is another Gaeseong specialty. A combination bowl of five dumplings and joraengi is the best dish at Koong, and a bargain at 6,000 ($5). You can also get only joraengi in your soup (6,000 won) or just dumplings (5,000 won).
Instead of meat broth, Koong uses a marrow broth, an ivory-colored soup made from the bones of cows. It has a mild, pleasant, slightly oily aftertaste.
Koong’s filling sets its dumplings apart. A mixture of beef, pork, bean sprouts, leek and tofu, Koong’s dumpling filling is neither too soggy nor too dry. Nine of 10 dumpling restaurants are negligent when it comes to wringing out the tofu. Not at Koong. If the tofu is too moist, it makes the filling too sloppy and the dumplings fall apart.
Another treat at Koong is the mung bean pancakes (10,000 won.) Koong serves other pancakes, like seafood and kimchi, but its specialty is mung bean.
Despite the reasonable prices, however, Koong should pay more attention to ambience. The plastic napkin holders and diner-quality box of spoons and chopsticks seem out of place for a palace.
Theme: North Korean dumplings and pancakes
Telephone: (02) 733-9240
Address: Gwanhun-dong, Jongno, across from Kyung-in art museum
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Credit cards: Accepted
by Chun Su-jin